Most painters stick to a few tried-and-true materials: a canvas, some brushes, and either oil or acrylic paints. But the forceful paintings of young artist Cy Gavin include very unorthodox ingredients: ground-up diamond dust to soft-pink sand to the artist’s own blood. “I happened to be barefoot in my studio, stubbed my big toe on the chipped beveled corner of a full-length mirror,” Gavin explains. “I immediately grabbed a clean brush and continued working, even before thinking of dressing the wound. The sheen of dried blood feels familiar to anyone who has ever been hurt.” In more than one painting, the dark red intermingles with ashes gathered after the cremation of his father. It’s a shocking but powerful gesture that leads us to question the gap between life and art—or, as Gavin says, “how people assign value to inanimate objects and how they assign value to living human bodies.”
Gavin, who is still an MFA candidate at Columbia University, had his first solo exhibition in New York City last year at Sargent’s Daughters, a young gallery that specializes in figurative paining. Gavin’s imposing, rumbling canvases merited comparison to the eerily colored landscapes of Peter Doig or the haunted portraits of Kerry James Marshall. But Gavin’s passions go beyond painting. He also works in performance art and moving images and has his own gallery, The Can, in Harlem. After consulting Lia Gangitano, the director of the august downtown gallery Participant, Gavin built out an unused, abandoned portion of a large, pre-war building and opened last year—without a lease. “The address is secret, so I meet patrons on the corner in Harlem and escort them in,” he says.
Gavin now travels frequently to Bermuda, his father’s homeland, collecting material for his work. “I wanted things like sand and botanicals and to scour the library and museums for information on the island’s history,” he says. “But it became immediately apparent that there were significant discrepancies between the histories I had encountered in, say, the historical society and those voiced by descendants of the island’s earliest inhabitants.” Bermuda’s colonial history is more than a place of research; it’s a muse for Gavin’s fraught and powerful art. “I find it impossible to not reckon with the past in Bermuda,” he says. “I am aware that my ancestors are, literally, underfoot. I am also aware that everyone else there is aware of this, too, even if they are silent.”